Connecting to prior knowledge
Before reading The Peasant Prince read the the flap on the dust cover to the class: ‘This is your one chance. You have your secret dreams. Follow them! Make them come true . . . !’ Have students select a piece of paper in a colour that could inspire their dreams or hopes. Have them jot down one to five secret dreams in point form using most of the page before sharing and discussing these with another student. Suggest the pairs help each other select one of the dreams to share in groups of four. Before sharing in groups, each student cuts a simple border onto their page which emulates the one dream they will share, e.g. wing shapes for flying; a sail shape for sailing. The group members then suggest how each could achieve their dreams and ‘make them come true’. Follow up by reading the text.
Read the book aloud. After reading, point out The Peasant Prince alludes to other texts such as the fable about the frog in the well and the folktale about the bow shooter. On a second reading of The Peasant Prince, pause at these two stories to give students the opportunity to discuss what the stories mean to them. Read the Grimm Brothers’ tale of The Frog King and show the Shaun Tan image in clay from The Singing Bones (Allen & Unwin, 2015). Give students the opportunity to recall and research other folktales and fables. Students individually create a clay image of a key character from a traditional tale of their choice. Label the image with a title and display on a relevant surface or stand such as a log, ripples in sand or water, or a shoe (The Singing Bones is a useful resource here).
Exploring the text in context of our community, school and ‘me’
The Chinese have a long history in Australia. It might be useful to trace some of their historical contributions to Australian culture over time. Many students in Australian schools have a Chinese heritage like Li Cunxin. Have students scan the book to find examples of Chinese heritage and culture such as flying kites, the clothing and eating with chopsticks. Students with Chinese heritage could share what similarities and differences their lifestyle has with that portrayed in the book.
Finish up by giving every student two post-it notes and have them write one thing that they have in common with Li’s life (at any point of the story) and one difference. Let students move around the room and share their thoughts with others. Students can focus on actual things or thoughts and feelings.
Rich assessment task
Once Li becomes a famous dancer there are newspaper articles about him that are shown in The Peasant Prince. Read these (page 29) and discuss how they are written. Discuss local heroes. In pairs, students select one local hero to research. The teacher will explicitly model some examples of newspaper articles that celebrate a hero. Students work with their partner to create a newspaper article. See resources for more information on writing newspaper articles. Provide students with a list of inclusions for their article: written text, a photo, and a catchy headline.
Responding to the text
- The Peasant Prince is a tale of overcoming adversity. Have students view the short video of author Li Cunxin speaking about his book, memories and stories of overcoming difficulties and problems. In small groups students discuss Li’s character development and prepare to write a character profile.
- To help create the profile have groups choose three points in the story where they study every aspect of Li, including his characteristics at that point and feelings. One group member becomes Li while the remaining group members sculpt Li to demonstrate his feelings at that point. This will help the groups see Li as he moves from tentative child to confident adult. Once this is complete the group can create the character profile. Display the profiles created. These will be referred back to at the end of the unit.
- In pairs, students then recall or research stories about someone who uses courage to overcome adversity and achieve something worthwhile or great e.g. Jarryd Hayne, Cathy Freeman. In pairs they present relevant information about their selected person (such as where they live, what they have achieved, how this achievement has changed lives, when this happened) by making a multimedia poster using Glogster. The pairs share their multimedia posters with the class.
- Students compare and contrast The Peasant Prince with another picture book adapted from a true life adult memoir, The Little Refugee by Anh Do and Suzanne Do, and illustrated by Bruce Whatley (Allen & Unwin). Both these books look at a child from another country who now lives in Australia and is very successful. Have students develop a series of questions they would like to ask Li or Anh. Questions about their goals and emotions should be included. Ask students to prioritise their list of questions. Divide the class into several groups and place students acting as these characters in the hot-seat to answer the prepared questions.
Exploring plot, character, setting and theme
Students read the descriptions of the three major settings in the book.
- Village in China: ‘Some time ago, in a remote village in northern China … bleak farming lands around his village’, ‘In winter it was a long, cold walk to our simple schoolroom of mud and straw. The icy winds blew snow through our clothes, chilling deep into our bones.’
- Beijing: ‘such strange sounds and sights at the enormous Beijing Station!’
- America: ‘I landed in a foreign city of huge highways and enormous buildings’.
Students sketch each setting and then annotate their sketch with the words and phrases in the book used to describe them. Discuss each setting and contrast them. What do they notice about each setting and how it relates to the development of the narrative? (The improvement in setting emulates the improvement in Li’s lifestyle and mood.) In small groups students make freeze frames to show the three changing places and Li’s matching emotions. These images can be recorded.
Rich assessment task
The Peasant Prince is a rags-to-riches tale. Even the title Peasant Prince reinforces this. Ask students to make pairs and discuss what this means and then each make a comic with three or six panels to show a rags-to-riches tale using Comic Creator or other software. Students create a fictional character whose circumstances change and improve. They could incorporate the theme of overcoming adversity.
Examining text structure and organisation
Students examine visual literacy choices and techniques used by illustrator Anne Spudvilas in The Peasant Prince. The imprint page informs us that she used ‘traditional Chinese ink and watercolour on rice paper, and oil paints on canvas’. Put students in small groups with a copy of the book and ask them to try to identify these media (it seems that the oils are used when Li is in America). Students can then examine the composition of each page and double page to see ‘what is put where’.
Now in pairs students can prepare to create dummy books with the same number of pages as The Peasant Prince. On each page or double page they use a light-coloured crayon to shade the approximate amount of space filled by illustrations to demonstrate where the illustrator has used large illustrations and vignettes (small illustrations). Explore the effects of these choices, including where white space is used as a framing device. Students explore salience to see what is most prominent by using a dark crayon to outline where an important figure is placed in the foreground or drawn as a large figure. Students then use bright red, orange or yellow crayons to mark the places on pages where these colours are used, such as the light from the candle.
As a class, revise features of a narrative. As a whole class and then in small groups, students examine the structure of The Peasant Prince. The ‘framing’ story around a story is seen at the beginning and end of the book. It is easily identified because it is shown in italics (page 1 and page 35). Students discuss how this written text in italics, frames the main story to create a beginning and ending that are written in a different style. The oral tradition of the frog in the well tale is also shown in italics. Students find where this is framed by white inside a block of colour and explore why it may be formatted differently from the other text.
Examining grammar and vocabulary
As a class, students learn or revise what ‘symbols’ are by referring to a dictionary or searching online. Have students find the symbols in The Peasant Prince in pairs and write a sentence or more about each (e.g. kite and paper wishes, frog, weeping willows) to explain how it is a symbol and what it stands for. A major symbol is the kite with ‘paper wishes’. Students make diamond kites like Li’s and attach their own ‘paper wishes’. Display these either in the branches of a weeping willow tree brought inside, or in front of a painted or silk-screen printed willow backdrop (screen printing requires adult help).
In The Peasant Prince the traditional tale of the frog in the well is written in italics and framed by white space inside a block of colour (page 4). Students refresh their memories of this by looking at the book. They re-read the tale, underlining the dialogue and highlighting the noun groups. Students record repetitive words such as ‘little frog’ and ‘deep, dark well’ in a notepad or on paper. Then they compare this more traditional style of writing with contemporary texts where there is less repetition and fewer adjectives. Students then write a dialogue between a child and parent using strong nouns and verbs (trying to avoid too many adjectives and adverbs in line with contemporary style).
Rich assessment task
Students return to the dummy books they have constructed in the first activity. They refresh their learning by examining the composition of the text:
- what is put where?
- what is prominent?
Prompt them to note the mixture of large and small illustrations and colour choices. Each student then creates a scene about either a family, a dancer or a frog as a double-page spread on rice paper, this being the paper that Anne Spudvilas used. If rice paper is unavailable use white paper. Students demonstrate their understanding of composition and salience and use of other techniques in the book by incorporating character/s, ink lines, colour (possibly using simple, inexpensive children’s painting sets to create the watercolour effect) and white space. Students complete the double-page spread with one, two or three paragraphs of carefully placed written text.
Students read and view traditional tales, particularly Aboriginal Dreamtime tales. View Tiddalick the Frog, which is very relevant because it is also about a frog and water. Students make finger puppets, using either disposable or rubber glove tips, felt or paper. Add facial and other features with materials such as wool, moveable eyes, pipe-cleaners, sequins and marker pens. Students then use the puppets to re-enact Tiddalick the Frog to each other in small groups, and perhaps also to some visiting adults or students. They can record the puppet re-enactment and use it as the basis for a short script.
Students talk about, then quickly list as a timeline, some of the most significant memories from their own lives. Like Li Cunxin, they then type a memoir of their life so far. Sub-headings could be used and the memoir should be between one and two pages in length. Optional: they can also include something that they hope might happen to them in the future. Students select a non-italic font (to emulate most of the written text in The Peasant Prince).
Display the character profiles of Li created last session. Re-read the charts, comparing each group’s work as you go.
- What descriptions are common across all the charts?
- Identify words and descriptions unique to some charts.
Go to the Australian Ballet website and read some of the descriptions of the current dancers. Reform the groups and have them use the words from any of the charts to jointly construct a descriptive paragraph about Li Cunxin the dancer. The description should be suitable to go on the Australian ballet website if Li Cunxin was a dancer today.
Rich assessment task
During this unit of work, among other things, students have been learning about framing techniques. In The Peasant Prince, white space is used to frame some of the illustrations, and written text in italics frame the story about Li Cunxin’s childhood and life. (Students may be interested to learn that this ‘frame story’ technique is also called ‘mise en abyme’.) Students demonstrate their understanding of these techniques by framing their memoir (see last task above) with an introductory paragraph or two, as well as an ending. They should use a font with italics for this text. Students then display their typed memoirs next to a photograph of themselves, both inside a white cardboard frame.